Why we love advice columns – and what we can learn from them
Advice columns have been around for much longer than you might think.
In fact, the first known advice column was published as early as 1690, in London newspaper the Athenian Mercury.
Our ancestors wrote into the paper to ask for advice about love affairs, the weather, a possibly prophetic dog, adultery, dancing, physics, and much more.
They were just like us, contemplating big questions and wanting an external adjudicator to explain them to us – and help us with our daily troubles.
The advice column format, in which readers send in questions and the writers respond with ‘direct instructions, with straightforward answers to questions, or by using the question as launch point for a philosophical treatise,’ as said by print historian Elyse Vigiletti, has remained largely the same for the last 300 years.
Nowadays, advice columns usually contain wild and scandalous stories about cheating spouses, evil in-laws, and terrible friends, rather than concerns over physics or the weather – after all, we have Google for that – but the appeal remains.
But why is this format so enduring? Why do we love reading advice columns and is there anything we can actually learn from them?
Almost every media outlet across the world has some form of advice column – though in the UK, they’re often called Agony Aunts. Here at Metro.co.uk, we have ‘The Sex Column’, where people can ask their all-important questions about their sex lives.
There’s also the Ask a Manager column by writer Alison Green, hosted on its own domain, Ask a Queer Chick from Rewire, Ask Amy in the Chicago Tribune, Dear Mariella at The Observer, Dear Vix at The Independent, Afro Answers and Queeries from gal-dem, and many, many more.
Each one uses that age-old format, but while some are general columns to get advice on anything you want, others are more specialist and focus on a specific topic.
Though they all cater to a variety of audiences, many of them see thousands if not millions of views, which begs the question: why?
Surely there are not that many people who are suffering from the same problem, or even a similar one – so are we just here for the chaos?
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist & co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, believes we like reading them because it gives us an understanding about other people’s lives and how they relate to our own.
She says: ‘Reading advice columns can tell us a bit about the human experience. It can help us feel less alone in our problems and perhaps even feel more connected. It can be a reminder that we all have our own struggles regardless of how things might appear on the outside.
‘Some advice columns can offer helpful advice whereas others are written for effect. It’s important to be aware of who’s writing.’
She advises us to question whether the person writing the advice is an expert in what they’re saying, or are they writing it simply for entertainment purposes.
There’s nothing wrong with columns being written for entertainment – they are after all designed to be clicked on and read – but not all of them are helpful to our own experiences, and Dr Touroni says we should take care not to project that advice in situations where they it may not be applicable.
Clinical psychologist, and managing director of The Thomas Connection, Michaela Thomas agrees: ‘It can be problematic to read advice columns if we become too attached to following the advice to the letter, instead of taking the bits which work for our own situation and flexibly leaving the rest.’
Dr Thomas says we can definitely learn from advice columns, especially ones written by those with expertise in the area they are advising – like a parent advising on a parenting column.
But, putting too much faith in the ‘expert opinion’ of a stranger on the internet can interfere with our own gut instinct and changing the way we feel about a certain situation.
Dr Thomas says there is a way to combat against this: ‘Make sure to check out any advice you pick from a magazine with a sounding board in your life, as it otherwise can be misguided advice based you pick from someone else’s experience.’
Asking your close friends whether they agree with the advice presented in a particular column and seeing if really is applicable to whatever you may be dealing with will be eye-opening as they know you better than a columnist.
Though some people do use advice columns to seek help for their own lives, or to look at the human experience, we can’t discount that sometimes we just love the drama.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying wild and crazy stories, so long as you’re not revelling in the misery of others. Dr. Touroni says that it can in fact help us to practice empathy towards them, and feel shock or upset at what they’re dealing with.
As Josephine Tovey wrote in The Guardian in 2019, the most popular advice columns are the ones that generate shock or upset, making them more shareable across social media.
She wrote: ‘Each of these viral problems [mentioned in the article] achieved something seemingly impossible in our divided, hyper-partisan online world. They provided rare moments of unity and moral clarity.’
There’s a reason advice columns remain popular over 300 years after they were first conceived. They can be genuinely helpful in solving our own problems, and they can be great entertainment.
But it is good to be aware that there are (usually) real people behind those problems who are dealing with them in real-time.
Additionally, if you are seeking advice for your own life, be wary that those columns may not apply to you unless you write in a question for yourself.
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